Friday, January 31, 2014

Mill Creek comedy classics #75: "Three Broadway Girls" (1932)

The Greeks may have had a word for them, but Hollywood had at least two names for their movie.

The flick: Three Broadway Girls (originally released as The Greeks Had a Word for Them* by United Artists, 1932; rereleased and retitled by Astor Pictures, 1947) [buy the set]

*The movie is based on a Zoe Akins play called The Greeks Had a Word for It; Zoe won a Pulitzer, but not for this.

Current IMDb rating: 6.5

Director: Lowell Sherman (successful actor-director of the 1920s and '30s; directed Mae West's She Done Him Wrong; also cameoed in The Stolen Jools; died two years after this while making a film called Becky Sharp)

Joan Blondell
Actors of note:
  • Joan Blondell (durable supporting actress who played a lot of "best friend" parts; lengthy resume includes Grease, The Champ, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, much more)
  • Madge Evans (perennial "nice girl" of the '30s; films include Dinner at Eight, David Copperfield, The Mayor of Hell, etc.)
  • Ina Claire (1920s Broadway star; film career didn't amount to much, but she appeared in Ninotchka, Stage Door Canteen, and a few others)
  • Lowell Sherman (directed this movie; see above)
  • David Manners (frequent star of classic Universal horror films, including Dracula, The Mummy, and The Black Cat)
  • Phillips Smalley (super-prolific actor-director of the 1910s; later appeared in the Marx Brothers' A Day at the Races and A Night at the Opera, plus Sunrise, The Phantom of the Opera, etc.)
  • Sidney Bracey (Tod Browning's Freaks, the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup, plus Sunrise, Angels with Dirty Faces, hundreds more)
  • Betty Grable (famous and beloved pin-up girl of WWII;  noted for "Million Dollar Legs"; movies include How to Marry a Millionaire and The Gay Divorcee; twelve years after this movie, she was the highest-paid star in America, earning $300,000 a year)

Seductress Jean (Ina Claire) plies her trade.
The gist of it: Roommates Schatzi (Blondell) and Polaire (Evans) welcome their mutual friend, would-be gold digger and habitual schemer Jean (Claire), back to New York after a disastrous trip to Paris which left her (deservedly) penniless. Jean is initially angry that Schatzi is now involved with the unseen Pops, an elderly "sugar daddy," since Jean always wanted to land Pops for herself. But that night, the three single gals go out on the town with Polaire's steady beau, nice guy Dey (Manners), and pretentious concert pianist Feldman (Sherman), who's supposed to be Jean's escort for the evening. Feldman invites them all over to his place and focuses all his attention on Polaire, whom he promises to turn into a successful pianist in her own right. Sensing defeat, Dey slinks off. But Jean sticks around and manages to seduce Feldman anyway.

The humiliated Polaire gets into a cab, which crashes into a milk truck. She survives, but the accident puts her in the hospital. As Schatzi predicted, Jean and Feldman's relationship doesn't last. When Dey finds out Polaire is in the hospital, he rushes to visit her and their romance is immediately rekindled, resulting in an engagement. Seeking revenge, Jean frames Polaire for stealing a strand of pearls, humiliating Polaire in front of both Dey and Dey's wealthy father, Justin Emery (Smalley). Dey and Polaire break up, and Jean ends up engaged to Justin! On the day of Justin and Jean's wedding, Schatzi and Polaire show up at the Emery home, supposedly to retrieve a good luck charm Jean borrowed from Polaire. Instead, they get Jean drunk and convince her to accompany them on a trip to Paris. The three women sneak out of the house while the wedding guests are arriving. Realizing he can't live without Polaire, Dey chases after them, hoping to catch them before they board a cruise ship bound for Europe.

My take: "Throughout the Ages, half of the women of the world have been working women... and the rest have been working men." So says the not-too-funny caption which begins this slight, forgettable battle-of-the-sexes comedy. Three Broadway Girls plays like a Prohibition-era version of a TV sitcom I wouldn't normally watch. It's about three worthless young women who spend their lives in pursuit of some equally worthless men. The characters party, drink, smoke, and lounge around constantly, and no one seems to have any real problems. So it was difficult to give a good goddamn what happened to these folks.

As indicated above, this movie was based on a successful stage play, and its roots in the theater are fairly obvious. This is a very talky, set-bound movie which is limited to a small handful of locations. Director Lowell Sherman, who is also fairly funny as pianist Boris Feldman, moves his camera around a little more than other low-budget comedy directors of the era, but there's no disguising the claustrophobia of this movie. The script is very heavy on self-consciously witty banter, and I think it might have played a little better with a live audience. Onscreen, it just kind of lays there, and the film feels inert and airless.

The trio of actresses at the center try to overcompensate by saying their lines with a lot of nervous energy, but it gets kind of shouty and annoying for my taste. Maybe they're trying to distract us from the fact that the so-called "friendship" between Jean and the two other girls is simply not believable. You could almost call Jean a "frenemy" to Schatzi and Polaire, but she never does a single nice thing for either of them and is eternally ungrateful. selfish, and duplicitous. Why were they ever friends with this woman in the first place? The likely reason is that the movie desperately needs a "wild card" character such as Jean to enliven the proceedings.

Joan Blondell and Madge Evans are given underwritten, unexciting roles, while outrageous, wisecracking Ina Claire walks away with the film and seems to be the only one really having any fun here. It's no surprise that Lowell Sherman also directed a Mae West film, since the sex-loving, man-hungry Jean is very West-like in Three Broadway Girls. She seems to have very little in common with the two others. The character of Jean, then, is both an asset and a liability to this film. She gets most of the script's funniest lines, but her character is so implausible that she's a distraction.

Is it funny: Well, I'd say I got a good, solid laugh about once every 10-15 minutes during Three Broadway Girls. The flirtatious game of cat-and-mouse between Jean and Feldman is good for a few slightly naughty chuckles, and I liked how utterly unimpressed Jean was by Feldman's concertizing. She blatantly snoozes through the one recital she attends and informs Feldman on their first meeting that she hates music. I also liked how Jean skillfully cons a fellow cruise ship passenger into paying for her hefty bar tab early in the movie. There are a few amusing moments that don't involve Jean, too, as when a drunk bumps into a snooty maitre d'.
Drunk: Waiter, I'm looking for a place to wash my hands. 
Waiter: (gesturing) There's a room there marked "Gentlemen," but don't let that stop you. You go right in.
Now I'm waiting for an opportunity to use that line in real life. By the way, there's some good visual humor in the film, too, as when Schatzi and Jean meet at a beauty parlor where women pay to have their hair attached to what look like dozens of ceiling-mounted electrodes.

My grade: C+

P.S. - Racial/ethnic content is fairly low in this flick. Much is made of Jean's status as an "Eye-talian," but I couldn't be sure if it was supposed to be a compliment or an insult. There are a few African-American servant (or servile) characters seen in the background, including our old pal Louise Beavers, but nothing offensive.